There’s an old German proverb that goes, "Brandy is lead in the morning, silver at noon, but gold at night." For the first Spirits Buying Guide of 2002, here are brand-new reviews on a particularly savory stash of nighttime gold. Cognac, sometimes referred to as the "King of Brandies" (especially by the image-conscious Cognaçais), is one of the authentic elite categories of distilled spirits. A host of new releases from several distillers over the last half-year illustrates how beguiling and seductive Cognac can be.

One of the newer trends in Cognac (since the late 1980s) is vintage bottling, of which I cite a handful in this current grouping. While vintage-dating doesn’t hold as much significance in spirits as it does in wine, it nevertheless makes for interesting conversation around the fireplace. Vintage-dating in Cognac indicates the harvest year of the grapes. The reason that vintage-dating in wine is more crucial than in spirits is that the winemaking process involves fermentation only while in spirits production fermentation is always followed by distillation. Each production step takes the final product further away from the harvested fruit source. As a result vintage Cognac or vintage Armagnac doesn’t reflect the genuine quality of the harvest as accurately as wine.

Also in this summary, you’ll find two savory Calvados and a bevy of fine brandies from the United States. Calvados, France’s hallmark apple brandy from Normandy, is one of the best kept secrets—at least in the U.S.—in the entire realm of distilled spirits. It’s easily one of the most brilliant brandy gems of all and deserves a far larger audience than it currently enjoys. One of Calvados’s best applications is as a slightly chilled palate cleanser between courses. The crisp, tart nature of calvados refreshes the palate and prepares it for the next round of food.
Bottoms up!

—F. Paul Pacult



CLASSIC (96-100)/Highest Recommendation

Clos Du Colombier 1973 Grande Champagne Cognac (France, CVI Brands, San Carlos, CA); 40% abv, $170. Tawny color leans to bronze. Aroma is vigorous, dry, tobacco-like and vegetal. Flavors of bitter almond and bacon fat greet the palate entry; at midpalate, tastes include marzipan, nougat, bittersweet cocoa, dark honey and old oak ,though not necessarily rancio. The aftertaste is surprisingly sweet, caramelly, even honeyed. A grand old dame of a Cognac that’s thrilling and racy.

Maison Surrenne Collector’s Series Tonneau No. 1 Petite Champagne Cognac (France, Santos & Dumont, Ukiah, CA); 41.9% abv, $270. A mere 198 bottles available from a cask filled in 1922. Chestnut brown color shows an attractive golden edge. Seductive scents of chocolate, pear drops, dark caramel, oaky vanilla, and honey. The palate entry is focused and smacks of dark caramel; at midpalate, the creamy, slightly bitter flavor and silky texture makes for Cognac nirvana. The finish is intensely toffee-like and lip-smacking delicious. A classic.

SUPERB (90-95)/Highly Recommended

Château Montifaud Napoleon Fine Petite Champagne Cognac (France, Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA); 40% abv, $62. It’s 15 to 18 years old. Appearance is topaz/bronze. The initial nosing passes highlight deep roasted nut and nougat aromas. Time in the glass finds subtle fragrances of hard cheese and oil. The palate entry is intensely caramel-like and dry; at midpalate, the hard cheese quality returns and makes a solid case for early-phase rancio presence. The aftertaste displays definite rancio earthiness/dustiness.

Château Montifaud VSOP Grande Champagne Premier Cru de Cognac (France, Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA); 40% abv, $45. Harvest gold/amber color. The opening nosing phases feature atypical aromas of blackcurrant and loganberry. The taste at palate entry is sweet, ripe and remarkably fruity; the flavor starts out off-dry and slightly dried/baked, then turns succulent, full and round at midpalate. The aftertaste is sinewy, fruity and ripely sweet. A charming VSOP that should be in every serious spirits collection.

Château Montifaud Reserve Speciale Michel Vallet Fine Petite Champagne Cognac (France, Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA); 40% abv, $65. Brilliant bronze hue with a golden rim. The dry bouquet is reminiscent of holiday fruitcake; with time in the glass the aroma expands as succulent fragrances of spiced apple, baked pear, beeswax and light toffee emerge. The entry flavor is dry and astringent; at midpalate there’s an explosion of lip-smacking caramel tastes. The aftertaste is long, bittersweet, and lovely.

Clos Du Colombier 1961 Grande Champagne Cognac (France, CVI Brands, San Carlos, CA); 40% abv, $270. The deep color is topaz/dark honey. The bouquet shows atypical aromas of cedar and old oak; with aeration more unusual scents appear, including lead pencil and ground black pepper. The palate entry is dry and intensely oaky; at midpalate, a touch of honey mingles with the old oak and acid. The aftertaste is long, concentrated, almost completely dry and resiny.

Croizet Age Inconnu XO Cognac (France, A.V. Imports, Inc., Columbia, MD); 40% abv, $50. Lovely new copper-penny color. The initial nosing passes encounter enticing scents of marzipan, nougat and grapes. In the mouth, this Cognac is seductive, concentrated and more dry than sweet; at the midpalate, focused and mature tastes of oak-influenced vanilla, baked pears, paraffin and dark caramel enchant. The finish has a bitterness that beautifully balances the sweetness. Well-made and unbelievably affordable. Best Buy.

Hennessy Private Reserve Grande Champagne Cognac (France, Schieffelin & Somerset Co., New York, NY); 40% abv, $150. Lovely bronze/honey color. The bouquet emits aromas of roasted chestnut and oak resin. On palate the entry is firm, tartly dry and crisp; the midpalate is piquant and displays hints of rancio, spirity heat and flavors of toasted almond and dried yellow fruit. It finishes solidly in waves of oaky vanilla and marzipan tastes.

Lheraud Vintage 1965 Grande Champagne Cognac (France, Christine Cooney Spirits, Lakeville, MA); 48% abv, $325. Bright coppery bronze/honey hue. The opening bouquet is toasted, charred and baked; an intriguing bouquet. The entry tastes are baked, bittersweet and intensely caramelized; the midpalate phase is off-dry to semisweet, showing flavors of baked apple, roasted chestnut, road tar, cigar smoke and palm oil. The aftertaste is long, resiny, bittersweet, and idiosyncratic. I love the sinewy, bittersweet virtues. Yum.

VERY GOOD (85-89)/Recommended

Château De Ligneres 10 Year Old Pure Single Estate Cognac (France, Austin Nichols & Co., New York, NY); 40% abv, $50. Dazzling new copper-penny color. At the opening whiff, the fruit comes forward quickly; in later nosings subtle notes of pears and carnations get added; by the last sniffing, touches of oak resin and fresh herbs appear and balance the acidity. At palate entry the raisiny sweetness is almost chewy; midpalate, there’s a rush of intense oak as the fruit suddenly vanishes. The aftertaste is resiny, and dry to off-dry.

Château Montifaud Prestige Grande Champagne Premier Cru de Cognac (France, Preiss Imports, Ramona, CA); 40% abv, $40. A VS- level offering. Pale honey/medium amber hue. Initial nosings detect an aroma that’s brimming with vines/leaves, spirit and a touch of toffee;time in the glass unleashes layers of mint, tobacco leaf and grapes. In the mouth, flavors are toffee-sweet; midpalate shows traces of marshmallow and nougat. The finish is long, sweet and very textured. A youngster but composed and well-mannered.

Croizet VS Cognac (France, A.V. Imports, Inc., Columbia, MD); 40% abv, $19. Autumnal amber hue. The opening bouquet emits ripe scents of pears, mint and new oak; air contact unearths richer aromas of chalk, ripe grapes and peach cobbler. Palate entry is sweet and intensely grapey; midpalate is layered, textured and loaded with oaky/vanilla and caramel tastes. The aftertaste is concentrated and caramelly. A sweet, unbridled Cognac for a remarkably reasonable price. Best Buy.

Croizet VSOP Cognac (France, A.V. Imports, Inc., Columbia, MD); 40% abv, $26. Wonderful bronze/honey color. Opening nosings offer idiosyncratic aromas of old Limousin oak, mustard seed, and ripe grapes; time in the glass reveals subtle scents of beeswax, caramel and vanilla. The primary taste at palate entry is dark caramel; at midpalate, multilayered flavors emerge including vanilla, honey, toffee, nougat, and resiny oak. The aftertaste is long and very honeyed; a world-class brandy that displays tons of charm.

Lheraud Vintage 1970 Petite Champagne Cognac (France, Christine Cooney Spirits, Lakeville, MA); 48% abv, $270. Vibrant bronze color. Initial nosing passes ferret out off-dry scents of roasted almond and dried fruit; time in the glass rouses subtle aromas of egg cream, caramel, vanilla and ripe grapes. Palate entry is pleasantly peppery and chocolaty; at midpalate tastes of cocoa, tar and tobacco leaf highlight the flavor. The finish borders on austere. Perfect for admirers of wiry, dry and resiny cognacs.

Lheraud Vintage 1950 Grande Champagne Cognac (France, Christine Cooney Spirits, Lakeville, MA); 40% abv, $449. Deep honey/bronze appearance ruined by floating debris. The opening emits polite scents of lanolin, almond oil and light oak; a bouquet lacking in charm and presence. Palate entry offers honeyed flavors that are more oak than fruit-driven; midpalate is plump, and razor-edged in acid. The finish is chewy, sweet, oaky and intensely caramelized. The concentrated, racy flavor and finish stages redeem this Cognac to allow a cautious recommendation.


SUPERB (90-95)/Highly Recommended

Boulard Founder’s Reserve 12 Year Old Pays d’Auge Calvados (France, Palm Bay Imports, Boca Raton, FL); 40% abv, $100. Pretty topaz/bronze color. Initial sniffings detect lovely aromas of baked apple, stewed pear and oaky vanilla; after air contact the bouquet fully develops, emitting fragrances of candied apple, fruit cake, dried apricot, maple syrup and toasty oak. Palate entry is succulent, semisweet and concentrated; by midpalate, the tastes are completely melded showing the beginning touch of rancio. The aftertaste is luxurious and integrated. Another sterling Calvados from this esteemed distiller.

VERY GOOD (85-89)/Recommended

Roger Groult Reserve Ancestrale Pays d’Auge Calvados (France, CVI Brands, San Carlos, CA); 40% abv, $360. Stunning old copper-penny color. Opening nosings find integrated aromas of baked bread, baked apple, roasted chestnuts and old oak; air contact makes the bouquet plumper, more intense and focused on the apple perfume. Palate entry is moderately fruity sweet; midpalate is oaky sweet but thinner than I’d like for the money. Bittersweet finish. Began well, but dissipated in the glass.

U.S. Brandy

CLASSIC (96-100)/Highest Recommendation

Germain-Robin Anno Domini 2002 Alambic Brandy (Ukiah, CA); 40% abv, $350. Beguiling honey/amber hue. Initial nosings pick up lovely aromas of pears, nectarines, grapes and light oak; aeration stimulates mature aromas of fruit cake, cake frosting, pear nectar and honey. In the mouth, tastes of honey and ripe grapes enchant; at midpalate a succulent flavor of light caramel and milk chocolate sends this brandy into a whole other sphere of excellence. Finish is clean and concentrated on toffee.

SUPERB (90-95)/Highly Recommended

Clear Creek Distillery Sauvie Island Framboise Raspberry Brandy (Portland, OR); 40% abv, $50/375 ml. Ideal clarity. Opening nosings unearth a soft, structured raspberry perfume with citrus and paraffin; air contact releases more juiciness and fresh fruit; an atypical framboise bouquet concentrates on the fruit source. At palate entry, an intriguing bramble taste balances out the succulent fruitiness; midpalate offers tastes of harvested red raspberry as well as a hint of tangerine peel and beeswax. Finish is warming and fruity.

Germain-Robin Cask 4 Alambic Brandy (Ukiah, CA); 40% abv, $1,200. Only 12 bottles made from brandies distilled in 1983 and 1984 by G-R. Pretty amber/honey hue. Initial nosings speak of oak-influenced vanilla and minerals; aeration stimulates other intriguing aromas including raisins, prunes, cedar and cigar box. Palate entry is soft and off-dry; at midpalate, flavors of orange peel, ripe grapes, light toffee and nougat explode. Finish is long, caramely and semisweet. Unfortunately, this dandy brandy is virtually impossible to locate.

VERY GOOD (85-89)/Recommended

Korbel Gold Reserve VSOP Brandy (Korbel Champagne Cellars, Guerneville, CA); 45% abv, $19. The initial nosing passes detect very little. Aeration does virtually nothing to assist in stimulating any fragrance whatsoever; at midpalate, the flavor turns caramelized and pleasantly fruity, even honeyed. The aftertaste plays up the honey/fruit to the hilt. Best Buy.


Germain-Robin Grappa of Merlot (Ukiah, CA); 41.1% abv, $55/375ml. Clear, with some floating white sediment. The opening bouquet is ripe, musty and off-dry; time in the glass deepens the scents of fresh-off-the-still spirit, pomace and ripe grapes. Palate entry is slightly tanky, minerally and slate-like; the midpalate comes off a bit hot, but shows lots of stylish fresh spirit taste. The finish is long, sweet, and intensely musty.

Korbel XS Extra Smooth Brandy with Spices and Natural Flavors (Korbel Champagne Cellars, Guerneville, CA); 40% abv, $15. Pretty amber/light honey hue. Curious bouquet is herbal, mildly spiced, and milk chocolatey; aeration adds egg cream, root beer and nutmeg scents. Palate entry is sweet and cola-like; midpalate turns the egg cream/cola volume up as the brandy base is lost in the forest of added flavors. Finishes like a cola, sweet and vanilla-like. Okay for unsophisticated drinkers; mix with Coke, maybe.

Our December 15th 2001 issue contained two reviews of the Pacific Star 1999 B-Bar-X Ranch Reserve Zinfandel (Mendocino County). The correct score is 89. We regret the error and apologize for any resultant confusion.

Published on August 30, 2005
About the Author
Dylan Garret

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